Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928) was considered the greatest ballet teacher of his time. His Method, as it came to be known, establishes and codifies theoretical principles, encompasses a vast range of steps, movement qualities and dynamics and eliminates technical difficulties addressing any problems through the application of basic physical principles. His Method appears to have been worked out with much logical forethought and with careful study it reveals the science behind the art of classical ballet.
A student trained in the Cecchetti Method dances with co-ordination and control, purity of line and can move with astonishing speed or measured lyricism. They are able to change planes and directions without difficulty and always with intense musicality and a sense of the innate joy of dancing.
So, who was Maestro Enrico Cecchetti?
Enrico Cecchetti was born on 21st June 1850 in the dressing room of the Apollo theatre, Tordinona, Rome into a family of dancers. His mother Serafina Casagli was a secondary mime at the theatre, his father Cesare a dancer too and noted producer of ballets. Both parents had trained with Carlo Blasis, the celebrated codifier of classical dance technique, in Milan. Enrico grew up in the theatres of Italy performing with his parents, his older sister Pia and younger brother Giuseppe. The family toured in America when Cecchetti was just seven years old.
Inspired by a parade in which King Victor Emmanuel, Garibaldi and Napoleon III were riding through Turin, the 10 year old boy wanted to become a soldier, or a dancer. He did not however want to go to school which was the idea of his parents who hoped he would become learned and respectable. After a second and unsuccessful attempt at formal schooling, Cecchetti finally persuaded his parents to let him take dancing classes and eventually he went to learn with Giovanni Lepri in Florence. Lepri was a student of Carlo Blasis. So, in addition to his Italian coreodramma technique, which combined mime with dance movements learned in the theatre and from his parents, Cecchetti became an accomplished technician, a virtuoso in the French classical style. This quickly led to employment as a dancer and Cecchetti toured professionally now alongside his sister Pia, who had completed her training also with Lepri, and his mother. Cecchetti by this time had already acquired the name of Maestro as he was often called upon to assist his fellow dancers with their technique.
Cecchetti’s early career met with great success not only in Rome, Turin, Pisa and other Italian regional theatres but he was a great sensation also with the notoriously critical audiences of the San Carlo in Naples and after his eventual debut at 20, at La Scala, Milan.
Cecchetti danced in many productions including fashionable ballets that strove to precipitate Italian desire for independence and unification. In 1866 when feelings of the Risorgimento were at their height in Pisa, he performed a Pas seul to the hymn of Garibaldi which encored 5 times. However, he was not a political man, but instead, passionate about his work as an artist, exuberant of nature, completely at home in the theatre and quietly pious. He was proud to be Italian, sought the company of his countrymen and his home cuisine whilst touring abroad and was devoted to his wife and extended family.
Cecchetti married the ballerina Giuseppina de Maria, in Berlin in 1878. She had trained also with Lepri in Florence. They were to have 5 sons together, 3 became dancers – including Grazioso who later became a teacher – although 2 died after having served in the Great War. The eldest son Cesare eventually became a successful lawyer, to the great pride of the family.
Together the Cecchettis toured with success across Europe including to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Following a great artistic success in St. Petersburg in 1887, Cecchetti was invited to join the Imperial Ballet under Marius Petipa the long-serving, French ballet master.
As a guest artist Cecchetti showed audiences that men could rival women onstage in brilliant technique and allied to this was his training as a great mime, so he was soon asked to teach this at the Imperial School. However it took 5 years before he received an official contract and it was not until 1898 that he was promoted to teaching technique in the more advanced classes. By this time, aged forty he was nearly at the end of his dancing career. Even so, in 1890 he created the dual roles of Carabosse and Bluebird in the Sleeping Beauty for which he will most be remembered because Carabosse was a mime role and Bluebird a classical, virtuosic dance role.
(Photograph above shows Cecchetti with Varvara Nikitina in the role of Bluebird, 1890)
By this time he had begun to codify what was to become his ‘Method of Classical Theatrical Dancing’. (The original document from 1894 is in the New York Public Library forms part of the collection of Cia Fornaroli, one of his last students.) The Maryinsky theatre management recognised that they could develop their own home grown talent rather than relying upon guest artists from Europe and Cecchetti’s students included the first generation of internationally recognised dancers, Pavlova and Nijinsky in particular and also Karsarvina, Kschessinska, Egorova, Trefilova, Preobrajenska amongst others, several of whom went on to become internationally renowned teachers in the early decades of the 20th century.
For reasons which are still unknown, Cecchetti left the Maryinsky theatre in 1902 to take up the position of Director of the Imperial Ballet School in Warsaw. By this time he was the most famous teacher at the Maryinsky and his pupils and friends included members of the nobility and intelligentsia as well as dancers in the school and company. Cecchetti invited dancers to Warsaw to help improve the level of the Ballet there but in 1905 increasing civil unrest and the discomfort of his family, persuaded him to return to Italy.
He did not stay long in Italy. By this time, the theatres preferred operas to ballets, so Cecchetti was soon back in St. Petersburg where he opened his own school and his previous pupils returned. Then Anna Pavlova, who had danced her debut in Giselle under Cecchetti s direction in Warsaw, sought his opinion of her as a dancer and his typical frank, unflattering reply caused her to demand that he teach her exclusively for the next three years, which he did, handing over his school to his wife.
Cecchetti maintained that he did not create what he called ‘Pavlova’s genius’ instead it was his Method of teaching classical ballet technique that allowed her genius to unfold. Their close professional relationship lasted until Maestro’s death in 1928.
At this time, one of the most important developments in classical ballet was just about to burst onto the western European stage. Sergei Diaghilev, Impressario, art critic and acquaintance of Cecchetti’s since 1898, brought first an exhibition of Russian art and then in 1909 a season of ballets to Paris and London stunning audiences with their daring use of new choreography, sensational costumes and stage designs and modern music especially composed for the ballet. Designers included Bakst and Goncharova, and one of the composers was Stravinsky. Later collaborations would bring in Picasso, de Chirico, Cocteau, Satie, Ravel, and fledgling choreographer George Balanchine. That the ballets had a profound effect on design and fashion in the first decade of the 20th century is well documented but also as a result of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, ballet as an art form would never be the same again.
Diaghilev’s troupe of Maryinsky stars eventually left their home in St. Petersburg to travel around the world, touring with Cecchetti who had been reluctantly persuaded by Diaghilev to go with them as their teacher and mime. In 1911, his wife gave up the school in St. Petersburg and joined the company, also as a mime. Cecchetti continued his stage career in ballets by Fokine and Massine whilst giving company class, determined to maintain the purity and elegance of his classical training in the face of modernism and the gradual destruction of the principles of theatrical dancing as he saw it.
After a nearly catastrophic tour to Spain at the end of the Great War, the Ballets Russes fled to London and Cecchetti settled in Soho, amongst other Italians, opening his own school within the year. It was said that you could not become a dancer unless you passed through his hands. Passionate, fiery, quick to show temper if a dancer displeased him but equally quick to give a compliment when merited, Cecchetti’s Method was adopted wholeheartedly by English dancers and eventually the critic and historian Cyril Beaumont decided it must be set down in writing for future generations. With the help of Idzikowsky, a Polish dancer trained by Cecchetti and eventually Maestro himself, the book was finished and published, and was a great pride to Cecchetti.
English trained pupils Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert were to go on to found the Vic-Wells and later Royal Ballet and Ballet Rambert companies respectively. They helped launch the careers of choreographers Frederick Ashton and Anthony Tudor amongst countless dancers and the Method was taught at the Royal Ballet School until 1986.
Cecchetti’s ill health and the unsympathetic climate of London prompted a return to Italy in 1923 where he convalesced at Lago Maggiore. He was soon teaching again and at the age of seventy five accepted an offer to become Director of Ballet at La Scala, Milan under the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Cecchetti demanded that students be accepted on merit, that they could be of any nationality and that their training would not be disturbed by participating in too many stage performances. In the summer he invited former ballerinas such as Virginia Zucchi and his friend Madame Pavlova to attend the school assessments.
Privately he continued to coach and also accepted occasional engagements from Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, now based in Monaco. One of his last students was Serge Lifar who went on to become director of the Paris Opera. Italian students Vincenzo Celli and Gisella Caccialanza became dancers and teachers in the USA.
(Photo above shows Cecchetti with his wife, Serge Lifar and Sergei Diaghilev in Venice, 1925)
In 1927 Cecchetti’s wife died and still Cecchetti continued teaching for another year. On 12th November 1928 he became ill in class and was taken home where he passed away the next day. Cyril Beaumont recorded in his Memoir of the Maestro:
“For the present there is none worthy to assume the mantle of Cecchetti. He was one of those great artists who appear not once in a generation but only at rare intervals in the world’s history of the theatre.”
Julie Cronshaw, London, May 2013